Freedom Under Surveillance, Part I
December 3, 3:44 PM
by Brian Trent, Independent Examiner
A gladiator match between freedom, technology, and government is being waged, and there’s no guarantee the America we know will survive it.
Consider Radio Frequency Identification tags, or RFIDs (which are the basis of the Animal ID program). A long-standing practice of biologists is to tag animals with tracking devices so their locations and behaviors can be monitored. In a few short years this technology will be coming to a human near you.
In recent years U.S. manufacturers began utilizing RFIDs in a staggering array of products. Making use of the same technology that allows cars to sail through EZ Pass tolls, RFIDs are being stitched into clothing, sneakers, razors, books, boots, and just about everything else that a tiny tracking device can be attached on or in. The initial incentive is a highly practical one: "tagged" products can be readily tracked through the distribution gauntlet from factory to store shelf. Concealed like many extant antitheft devices, they will do nothing unless touched by a "reader signal," which makes the RFID "reply" with its own unique signal – an electronic dialogue invisible to the person wearing it.
There are other uses for this remarkable invention. The shoppers of 2015 will be able to walk into a store and have their clothes "tell" the salespeople their entire purchasing history and preferences. As more and more businesses merge into megacorporations, future consumers will find themselves at the heart of an elaborate web work in which their entire financial histories can be traded wherever they go.
This isn't science fiction. Since 1997 Mobil has been spectacularly successful with its Speedpass program while convenience-store juggernaut Wal-Mart mandated its largest suppliers that products must be equipped with RFID tags by January 2005. This has understandably raised the hackles of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the World Privacy Forum. It's one thing to install an anti-theft tag on a Liz Claiborne sweater; such devices are removed before you exit the store. It's quite another when your apparel can theoretically announce your location wherever you go, broadcasting your sales information.
In Greek mythology, the hundred-eyed god Argus was the world's greatest watchdog; today Argus has become a reality in the form of thousands of surveillance cameras in such key cities worldwide as London, England; Sydney, Australia; and most recently Washington, D.C. After the terrorism of September 11, 2001, the U.S. capital was quick to embrace the cameras, which now keep watchful eyes trained on federal buildings, mass-transit stations, and shopping areas. According to a statement by D.C. Chief of Police Charles Ramsey, America's capital "must and will expand its use of surveillance cameras, much like London, which uses 150,000 cameras to monitor its population."
The use of technology by police to enforce the law is quite different from using technology to “monitor a population.” Arresting lawbreakers isn't the same as tracking every citizen in a given prefecture. Setting up radar speed traps for lead-footed drivers doesn't mean that surveillance should be used on everyone who drives, walks, shops, and has conversations they think are private. The development of TIA, a database originally called Total Information Awareness but recently changed to Terrorist Information Awareness (for political purposes which keep the acronym, and purpose, identical) is already laying the brickwork for all information to be kept in one absolute database by an absolute police force.
Says Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director of the ACLU in California:
"The threat of widespread government surveillance only multiplies when cameras are combined with other new technologies such as radio frequency identification tags, face and eye scans, and automated identification software. In this light, video surveillance cameras provide a critical pillar for an emerging government surveillance infrastructure."
The wild proliferation of surveillance cameras has been decried by privacy groups for several years now. Others snapped in reply, “Who cares? As long as you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you fret?”
This one-dimensional argument is incredible. Were the men under Taliban rule doing something wrong when they didn’t grow their beards a specific length? Were Jewish families wrong for being Jewish under Nazi rule? Or perhaps the pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square? Or witches under Torqamada’s administration?
In our own age, we have seen a White House administration which equates dissent with being a terrorist. Many people defended the Bush doctrine of illegal wiretapping, data-mining, and trading civil liberties for false security. And why? Because they trusted Bush.
Now Bush is heading for the exit doors, but the system he put in place will remain. When the infrastructure for universal surveillance is erected, it doesn’t vanish in a puff of smoke when regimes change hands.
And meanwhile, the surveillance continues to multiply. The accountability continues to diminish.